Review by: Markus Pilskog
Album assigned by: Pip Poodlez
Though I am somewhat aware that it exists as a cultural phenomenon, I have never really dealt much with steampunk as a scene, and wasn’t even aware it had a musical section as well. Therefore, I had few ideas on how Steam Powered Giraffe might sound prior to listening (Victorian-era style industrial?) except that I guessed (correctly) it would be some quite theatrical stuff. The band is made up of 3 members from San Diego who met while studying Theatre Arts (obviously), starting out as a pantomime act(!) and centered around the core of the Bennett twins. They dress up as three robotic characters called The Spine, Rabbit and Hatchworth, and the lyrics seem to revolve around these robots’ daily adventures and the world the band has constructed around them (including the titular giraffe). Apparently, the band has made a web comic about these robots as well, so for anyone interested; I guess it’s freely available.
In the time-honored tradition of Sgt. Pepper, the album starts by welcoming you to the show and introducing the band, before closing the show right before the end. What lies between, however is mostly folksy music with a lot of different instruments (guitars, mandolins, banjos, ukuleles and accordion), giving you that good old 19th century feeling. To the band’s credit, they manage to make the album quite diverse, both stylistically (country, old-time pop, cabaret, and mostly folk styles I don’t know the name of) in tempo and structure (many songs change considerably during its runtime) which suits the theatrical style of the album quite well. The instrumental arrangements are done quite well, with the varied use of instruments and small details helping to give the feel that the band is looking for. At many points while listening to the album, I found myself smiling because of the cheerful nature of many of the songs and the whimsical lyrics. The album is never hilariously funny, but a song like “Ice Cream Parade”, with a brilliant change halfway through the song, is quite entertaining. Also, a song like “Electricity is in My Soul” showcases a smart use of sounds, containing one of the better uses of a talk box I have heard in some time.
One of the areas that the band is really excelling in is vocal harmonies. All of their members are accomplished vocalists, and though a bit theatrical on their own, the album is filled with great vocal harmonies. Especially “Brass Goggles” (one of the highlights) features a really cool a capella section which showcase their vocal talents to the fullest. However, what this track also showcases is something that is a bit lacking in the rest of the songs, namely catchiness (it has a cool drunken chorus) and general songwriting. Most of the songs sound like they should (thanks to both good arrangements and really good production), but the songs themselves are seldom very engaging after first listen. I don’t think the concept itself is a hindrance to this, and several of the songs seem to beg for some jolly crowd-participating singing, though this seldom happens. Few of the melodies are very memorable, which is a problem since the album never really tries to reach you on a larger spiritual level. While listening to this album, I was reminded of Katzenjammer (Norwegian band), who plays similar music (no steampunk and less theatrical though), but are generally more memorable and gripping.
In the end, what saves the album, and ultimately makes it somewhat satisfying, is the execution of the concept and style of the album, which is done very professionally, especially when considering that they weren’t particularly old at the time. They already show that they know how transitions in the songs can work out, and they manage to make you feel good when listening to the music, even though the album does not stay with you for a long while. They have most of the prerequisites for making a really good album, and even if they’re not there yet, I would still conclude that this is a worthwhile listen.